THE LAST POST
"A man is what he believes."
Belief is everything.
I watched a documentary recently about Russian corruption and the ways in which the vast amount of twenty years of military spending had been siphoned off. It had never actually been spent on weaponry – to the extent that the reactive armour, on the outside of T-80 tanks and designed to pre-ignite high explosive anti-tank rounds (HEAT), had not been made from explosive materials, rather only rubber boxes made to look so. This armour, when hit by projectiles, would so obviously do very little to protect the crew inside.
In the same vein, bulletproof Kevlar plates, which many frontline troops wear, are for a great number of soldiers only worthless metal plates, and sometimes even only cardboard padding, which bullets pass so easily through. For those aware of the deception, there has been outrage, of course, and a desperate attempt to secure real ballistic plates before being sent to war. But for others, those who haven’t known any different, and those who believe that their government would furnish them with the right tools for survival and for war-fighting, there has been hope: both for their survival, but also for success of the so-called “Special Operation”.
Belief is survival.
The documentary went on to explain how, despite the twenty-year plan to improve conventional forces, Russian military doctrine has existed under the premise that they would never actually ever go to war again, with conventional forces at least, because nuclear weapons, and the spectre of mutually assured destruction, would always prevent this. So, those in charge of military spending have simply kept it for themselves, because, well, the equipment would never be used, anyway.
Belief is a Cope Cage.
Western planners, believing HEAT rounds would be ineffectual against the encompassing reactive armour of Russian tanks, or at least, if not ineffectual, would require multiple strikes to disable them, would go onto develop anti-tank munitions such as the Next-Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW) that, rather than trying to go through the thickest and most protected areas of armour, would instead, be designed to go through the thinnest, found on the roof of the tank.
In response to this, the Russian military would, in turn, counter this Western development with something they call the Cope Cage.
In some respects, the Cope Cage, sometimes called Slat, Bar, Cage or Standoff armour, illustrates the very notion of the word belief. So much belief must be invested into the idea that a few welded together pieces of steel, sometimes with branches and leaves on top, will prevent you from burning to death or from being torn apart by the igniting tank rounds, which surround you in the inside of the tank turret.
In theory, this type of armour, if constructed adequately, could give, if not absolute then some protection to a tank and, yes, all those rounds housed around the inside of the turret. Yet once again the money wasn’t spent on adequate protection, and the sight of Russian tanks with their auto-loaded ammunition cooking off, sending tank turrets and the torn and charred remains of the commander flying upwards into the Ukrainian skies has been an oft seen image during the last months of what has become a war.
Belief is ignorance.
I have believed in so many different things over the years. I believed once that a fat man in a red and white suit would bring me gifts if I was good. Then there was my belief that a benevolent and capitalistic orthodontic fairy would leave money under my pillow in exchange for my fallen-out teeth.
I even believed, as a somewhat troubled child, that, after bidding my father goodbye on his way to the night shift, if I touched the doorknob three times, he would return home safely the next morning. “God go with you”, I would always make sure to say. These were my last words to him as he walked out the door each evening. “God go with you.”
Yup, that old white dude with the white beard, up there beyond those Pearly Gates, I even once believed in him too, at one point, when still a child.
Well, it’s easy to believe things told to you by your betters, or people you have been told are your betters, when you know no better yourself. Or, indeed, when you don’t want to know better. Sometimes letting others think and believe for us is so much easier. But people will believe anything if the right person tells it to them. Brexit anyone?
2022 brought so much happiness and yet so many tears as my father would sadly die without me being able to be at his side. Alford, leaving on that final night shift without me being able to say that one last time, “God go with you.”
I had always held onto the belief that somehow my parents would always be there, but of course, they wouldn’t be. Paddy Summerfield has spoken eloquently about photographing his parents as a way of keeping them alive. Perhaps I did that too. During the last fifteen years of their lives, which I had photographed them.
It has been so hard though to look back at all those photographs and videos taken throughout that time, photographs which I am still sequencing into narratives that attempt to tell their story – a British story of British citizens who came to England and never left. Citizens who had a son who grew up to make British photographs, yet whenever he would hear the term ‘British Photography’ knew it really was never one which sought to include his images within this classification.
So, as I look back at the portraits of my parents, it is obviously not hard to see them as Bazin’s ‘death masks’ of a time that is now gone forever. Indeed, even when I was taking them, I would mentally project myself into the future, seeing myself as an older man looking back at them after they had gone.
Now that I am that man, looking at those photographs and at the ways my parents would age so markedly in what now seems such a short time. I cannot help but think of my own mortality and my own few short years to come.
The simple act of placing two portraits of my father together, just ten years apart, feels so shocking as I can witness his decline. In one image, there is a man whose life and energy seemed so tangible; there is sheen and effervescence – there is life, hope and still the love of his wife, my mother, who is still with him. In the other, there is a man shaped by the loss of his wife of over fifty years. This second man has become a grey, gaunt figure whom life seems to be ebbing away from. Yet, he would fight to the very end, and with every breath, to stay alive. The journey through and between those two photographs, which I lived as an incremental passage of time, presented an ageing process that was almost indiscernible. I could simply perceive new periods of normalcy because ageing always happens in plain sight. We just choose to believe it isn’t happening.
Belief is self-delusion.
What does it mean to believe that you are a photographer in 2022 in a time when everyone is a photographer or believes that they are? That time, especially online, when some, without any experience at all, believe that they can give advice and wisdom to those who have spent all their lives committed to learning and practicing photography? Maybe I'm just being bitter, or I'm just tired from continuing to climb up photography's greasy pole.
A friend once said that a photographer should never photograph their family. I often quote this to myself as well as to others. Considering this, perhaps I must believe that I did the right thing in photographing my parents and putting their lives on show for public consumption. Just as my parents had to live with the belief that the sacrifices they had made to leave Jamaica, to never see parents and siblings again so they could find a better life in England, was the best choice.
They had to believe that. Even when people refused them housing, shouted at them in the street or chased them with bicycle chains, as the Teddy Boys did. Churches and pubs refused them entry and people on buses would ask to see their tails. Still, they must have believed this to have been the right choice.
Representing the first chapter of a chronology of three, From a Small Island is being released on pre-order at a time when I have continued the family tradition of leaving life behind to move to a new country. It can be difficult not to reflect on my parents' deaths as I look once more at their lives. The candid photographs of my parents’ love for each other alongside those moments where my mother would emerge from her dementia to momentarily find clarity and then terror with the frightening realisation of her cognitive decline and tears before she slipped back into the deep unclear depths of dementia, still live with me.
I look back, too, at a video on my phone sometimes. It is of my father showing my wife how to make fried dumplings in the kitchen. All of us laughing as the door slowly opens to reveal my mother standing there slightly bemused at as all, just a few months before her death. Dementia squeezing her in its grip, yet still with health and mobility remaining. I tell her to come and “join the party” and she, alongside my wife and my father, all laugh in the kitchen of the home she loved.
This is the home that ultimately she chose to die in, not much longer after the video was made. I’ve written about this kitchen scene several times now. Perhaps I just like to relive the moment as I type these words out again? But to think that just six months later she would be dead seems so impossible – unbelievable – even now. Dementia had other plans and finally took away her ability to eat and then even breathe for herself.
I must believe that my parents will live on in my photographs even more so now, perhaps. The family home that they both died in, that home of over thirty years’ worth of family memories of joy and pain, is now in the process of being sold to a stranger. One, of course, who will erase all and every trace of those last thirty years of life, to the degree that all that will remain of them will only be found in my heart and in my photographs.
The concept of belief, and why and what we choose to believe in, has always intrigued me. I know that there is a rich history of philosophical thought that I could rely on here, but as that rich vein of philosophy once colluded with science to ferment the belief in the inferiority of my Blackness, I’ll give that a miss right now.
Belief is a choice.
As we approach the year's end, a year which has seen a billionaire Black man have the belief that Hitler – who castrated, sterilised and murdered Black Germans as well as murdering Black Allied prisoners of war – should be praised. I look on, as well, at all those posts and tweets slowly arriving in my timeline from all those people who believe that 2023 is going to be “their year”. All of them so glad that 2022 is finally over and that somehow an arbitrarily contrived date change will make all the difference in their lives to come. That a clean sheet, free from the errors of the past, will be theirs for the making.
It's easy to be scornful and to laugh, even when I believe the same, perhaps. Even when I, too, have that strange belief that I have the power to write my future on the blank pages of the year to come. To make things right, make more progress, make new work, be better and yes, to believe in myself more. Even when I am slowly retreating away from so many things I had once thought I believed in, and which don’t seem to matter anymore.
I still believe.
I still believe in photography, even though it has told me so many lies over the years.
I still believe.
I still believe that I have new work to make and more things to say.
If only because photography is my Cope Cage, and no matter how weak its construction, I can either choose to believe that it will save me or damn me because, of course, belief is all we have.
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